The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), also known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch or Pacific Garbage Vortex, is an ever-growing collection of garbage in the North Pacific Ocean. It was discovered in 1997 by yachtsman Charles Moore during a yacht race. Moore and his team observed millions of pieces of plastic floating around the ship while traveling between Hawaii and California. The total area is three times the size of he in France and is the world’s largest accumulation of floating marine plastics.
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GPGP actually consists of two patches of marine debris. The Western Garbage Patch (WGP) is located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch (EGP) is located between Hawaii and California. The patches are tied together by the North Pacific Subtropical Circulation. This is a system of swirling currents within the North Pacific Ocean.
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These rotating collections of debris are connected by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. This is where cold water from the Arctic mixes with warm water from the South Pacific. Zones act like highways, the waste he pushes from one patch to another.
WGP and EGP are called “patches”, but they are not really big piles of garbage floating in the ocean. GPGP is mostly composed of microplastics. These make the water look like murky soup, littered with other items such as fishing gear and other large plastic items. With 70% of marine debris submerged under water, the ocean floor beneath the GPGP could also be a pile of underwater debris.
What’s in GPGP?
Many types of waste end up in the ocean, but plastics in particular make up the majority of marine debris for two reasons. First, they are durable and easy to manufacture, which is why they are used more in different industries. Second, unlike other types of garbage and waste, plastic products are not biodegradable Mm. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics.
Two ways plastic breaks down into microplastics are by the sun and by the North Pacific subtropical circulation. Sunlight breaks down small plastic items like bags, bottle caps, and water bottles through a process called photodegradation. This means that if the material continues to be exposed to light, it will begin to decompose. Meanwhile, the gyre churns large plastic items and breaks them down into smaller microplastic particles. Microplastics are non-biodegradable and very difficult to extract during cleaning operations.
No one knows how much debris GPGP contains, but current estimates indicate that it contains 80,000 tons of plastic waste. Some of these have been in GPGP for decades. In fact, a cleanup uncovered fishing buoys and crates from the 1960s and his 1970s. Unfortunately, this trend continues and the size of EGP and WGP is increasing day by day.
Where does this waste come from?
Most marine waste is usually thought to originate on land, but in fact the majority of it originates offshore. 75-86% of the waste found in both EGP and WGP consists of plastic debris from abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG). This includes nets, buoys, crates and eel traps. This is based on analysis conducted by Amsterdam-based non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup. They have been working since 2018 to remove less common but larger debris.
The hard plastic waste found by The Ocean Cleanup comes from several industrialized fishing nations operating offshore. These include Japan (34%), China (32%), South Korea (10%), USA (7%), Canada, Taiwan and other countries (17%).
Impact of GPGP
Given that plastic pollution is increasing in aquatic ecosystems, there are several implications for biodiversity in these areas.
Marine life can mistake plastic for a food source. For example, sea turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. This can suffocate or digest plastic compounds, which can adversely affect health and reproduction.Albatrosses and other seabirds, on the other hand, may perceive resin pellets as fish eggs. If fed to chicks, they die from malnutrition or organ rupture.
Microplastic particles are small, but they can have devastating effects on entire food systems. Microplastics can also block sunlight from reaching underwater algae and plankton. These organisms require sunlight for photosynthesis and are major autotrophs in food systems. Larger animals that eat algae and plankton, like various types of fish, can be affected if these smaller organisms cannot produce the nutrients to sustain themselves. populations will decline, and eventually seafood will become more difficult to obtain and affordable for people.
Furthermore, if microplastics are accidentally ingested by marine organisms, the chemicals and pollutants absorbed by these particles will affect the organism’s health. This also affects food chains and can affect marine life and humans.
Larger marine life is at risk when it comes to larger plastic items, especially those used for fishing. Seals, dolphins and other medium to large animals can become entangled in abandoned fishing gear such as nets. There is a nature. These are often discarded due to negligence, bad weather or illegal fishing activities.
what can we do about it?
The waste that contributes to the GPGP consists of contamination from various countries, so no particular country is responsible or provides funding to clean it up. But states and non-governmental organizations can work together to have a greater positive impact.
One such example is how The Ocean Cleanup organization hopes to extract 90% of ocean plastic waste by 2040. Last year, their team removed more than 100 tons of floating plastic waste from the oceans. However, the efficacy and long-term effects of these activities are questionable and can disrupt marine ecosystems.
There are some challenges facing the group to clean up GPGP. One is that the technology to remove microplastics from water is very basic. Using these methods inevitably confuses marine life. However, removing larger amounts of plastic waste alone is not enough to create lasting positive impacts. Researchers and large organizations need to take action to find ways to optimally extract both microplastics and large plastic waste without causing undue harm to aquatic life.
Efforts to clean up WGPs and EGPs are slowly being made by large organizations, but we consumers can limit or even eliminate our use of plastic products. Instead, biodegradable and/or reusable alternatives are best. In this way, we can limit the amount of land-based plastic that flows into the ocean via waterways. Being more aware of how we consume plastic in all aspects of our lives is key to living a more sustainable life.
via Popsci, The Ocean Cleanup, and National Geographic
Image by The Ocean Cleanup. Header image by Unsplash